Dramatic federal budget cuts of 13 percent for defense and 9 percent for most other programs took effect Friday, and the world did not end.
Instead, traffic flowed normally at the Peace Bridge, travelers came and went through the usual security lines at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, and the IRS remained hard at work processing tax returns.
But inside the federal bureaucracy, the stupid-by-design budget cuts known as “sequestration” were the source of great worry and, for the first time, personal pain, as employees at two agencies – the Justice Department and National Labor Relations Board – received furlough notices.
Those were the first signs of what government officials said would be a slow roll-out of budget cutting that won’t touch Social Security or Medicare benefits but will take an ax to most other programs.
What’s more, even though sequestration was designed to be so unpalatable to both parties that they would be forced into compromise on something better, it seemed increasingly likely Friday that the sequestration cuts would stay in place indefinitely.
For one thing, President Obama said he will not use a March 27 deadline, by which Congress must pass a spending bill to fund the government through the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year, as leverage to force Republicans to make a deal on sequestration.
“There’s no reason why we should have another crisis by shutting the government down in addition to these arbitrary spending cuts,” Obama told reporters at the White House.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the House will pass legislation next week to extend routine funding for government agencies beyond the March 27 expiration. “I’m hopeful that we won’t have to deal with the threat of a government shutdown while we’re dealing with the sequester at the same time,” he said.
Meanwhile, Republicans maintained that they would not even consider negotiating over the president’s demand for higher taxes as part of a package to replace sequestration.
Emerging from a White House meeting with Obama and other congressional leaders, Boehner told reporters: “The discussion about revenue, in my view, is over.”
That means that in Buffalo, the discussion is all about: When will the spending cuts hit?
And while that’s still an unanswerable question, it was clear that they had not hit as of Friday.
Despite promises from Washington that border agents would be furloughed at some point, the Peace Bridge looked especially clear at midday Friday.
It remains unclear what, if anything, will happen at the international crossing, said Sam Hoyt, chairman of the Peace Bridge Authority.
“We recognize that this border crossing is just critical to the economies on both sides of the border,” Hoyt said. “We have every confidence that our congressional delegation, who have been great allies of the bridge, will use all of their collective might to do what they can to make sure our concerns are addressed.”
Meanwhile, at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, it was business as usual – even though the Department of Transportation has said it might have to end the control tower’s overnight shift, and even though the control tower at Niagara Falls International Airport might be shut down, with its work shifted to Buffalo.
Such actions likely won’t have much impact on air travel in the Buffalo area, said C. Douglas Hartmayer, spokesman for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.
“We’re fairly confident that the [Federal Aviation Administration] would be able to keep an employee in the [Buffalo] tower and an employee in the operations center that would allow our flights to continue past midnight,” Hartmayer said.
But it was all speculation Friday as airport officials waited for more news.
“We’re sitting here waiting to find out what’s going to happen just like everyone else,” Hartmayer said.
There was no unusual backup at security at the airport, despite warnings that Transportation Security Administration officials may have to be furloughed.
So far, most agencies have not announced details of any plans to cut back on work hours for federal employees – although the Justice Department and NLRB are exceptions.
Some employees in U.S. Attorney’s offices have received notices that they could be furloughed for up to 14 days between April 21 and Sept. 30, the Washington Post reported. William J. Hochul Jr., the U.S. attorney for Western New York, did not return a phone call seeking comment on the furloughs.
At the local office of the NLRB, all employees have been notified that they could be furloughed for up to 30 calendar days, said Rhonda Ley, the agency’s regional director.
For most federal workers, though, sequestration still means uncertainty.
At the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, for example, employees know they might be furloughed as of April 21, and they know that a major construction project involving a new flight simulator is on hold. But that’s all they know.
“There’s an aura of caution here,” said Maj. Andrea Pitruzzella, public affairs officer for the 914th Airlift Wing at the base, who said stress management services will be made available to employees who may be furloughed.
“We’re preparing for the worst but hoping for the best,” she added. “What this means, what the impact will be, we just don’t know.”
The same can be said for Robert T. Brady, chairman of Moog Inc. of East Aurora, whose defense unit employs more than 1,500 people in the region – and could suffer cutbacks because of sequestration.
“We don’t know how sequestration will be implemented by the Department of Defense,” Brady said. “We don’t know how long it will take them or how they intend to do it.”
School districts in Buffalo and around the nation, which face cuts in federal funding for educating the disadvantaged and the handicapped, face a slightly more certain outlook.
Buffalo Public Schools stand to lose $2.54 million in federal aid, but that cut won’t take effect until the 2013-14 school year, said Elena Cala, spokeswoman for the district.
“We’re just going to have to wait and watch and see how it affects our planning for the coming year,” Cala said.
There’s still a chance, of course, that sequestration will be repealed or modified by the time the school year starts. But local lawmakers agreed Friday that it looks increasingly likely that the cuts – $85 billion through September and $1.2 trillion over a decade – will stand for quite some time.
The House next week will consider legislation funding the government from March 27 through the end of the fiscal year at levels included under sequestration, said Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence.
In addition, the House will look at giving the president more flexibility in drawing up the cuts under sequestration, but Collins said he saw no pathway for negotiations to redraw or replace those cutbacks.
“I don’t know what more there is to negotiate,” Collins said. “We’re not going to negotiate additional tax increases.”
Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, also didn’t hold out much hope for redrawing the spending cuts as part of the legislation due March 27 to fund the government through the rest of the fiscal year.
Calling that deadline “just another inflection point,” Higgins said: “Too many look at it as just another opportunity to create mischief.”
While Higgins called the House and Senate “profoundly dysfunctional” and fretted that the cuts would be a big and unnecessary hit to the economy, at the Buffalo airport few people seemed all that worried about the impact of the sequestration.
“It seems as though they are scare-mongering,” said Tom Irwin, a business owner from Derby. “I know a lot of people are concerned about it without knowing anything about it.”
John McIntyre, of North Tonawanda, who teaches law at Niagara County Community College, seemed just as unconcerned.
“I’m not worried about it,” he said. “They always manage to figure it out.”
But Roberta Gainer, a General Motors employee from Cheektowaga who was on her way back from a conference with her husband, said she believes the American people feel like they’re being held hostage by one congressionally created crisis after another.
“It’s the sequester, and before it was the fiscal cliff,” she said. “We’re always living in fear.”
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